Moscow confirms sending hundreds of soldiers to the Central African Republic where a rebel group has seized a trading hub ahead of Sunday's controversial election.

UN forces drive on National Road 1 towards the clashes that took place 50 km ahead on the road between armed groups and the Central African Army supported by Russian private security elements, in Boali, on December 22, 2020.
UN forces drive on National Road 1 towards the clashes that took place 50 km ahead on the road between armed groups and the Central African Army supported by Russian private security elements, in Boali, on December 22, 2020. (AFP)

Rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) have seized Bambari, the country's fourth-largest city, as clashes broke out on a key highway in the west of the country five days before nationwide elections.

The attacks follow the government's accusations at the weekend that former president Francois Bozize was seeking to mount a coup with armed groups ahead of upcoming elections.

At CAR's request, Russia and Rwanda have sent military personnel to support the troubled country.

"The town is under the control of armed groups," Bambari Mayor Abel Matchipata said, while a senior government official confirmed, "they are in the town, we are waiting for reinforcements, which are on their way."

Meanwhile, Russia said on Tuesday it has sent 300 military instructors to the country at the request of its leadership to help counter a surge in rebel violence ahead of Sunday's election.

"We are carefully following the unfolding situation in the Central African Republic," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

"We are seriously concerned that the events of recent days have led to a sharp deterioration in the security situation in this country."

READ MORE: Rebel advancement in CAR 'under control'

Fighting on key highway 

Bambari is located 380 kilometres northeast of the capital Bangui.

The attack, which began at 10 am (local time), triggered a two-hour gunfight with CAR troops and the United Nations' peacekeeping force MINUSCA, sources in NGOs and the UN told AFP news agency.

"There has been no violence towards local people, but they have ransacked the police station, the gendarmerie, and people's houses," Matchipata said.

The sources said the rebels were led by an armed group called the Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), one of the militias contesting the government in the run-up to the December 27 polls. 

On Saturday, the government accused three militias of advancing along key highways towards Bangui. 

MINUSCA said late Sunday that the advance was halted and in some places pushed back and the situation was "under control."

But fighting broke out between armed groups and CAR forces on Tuesday afternoon on a major road in the west of the country linking Bangui to Cameroon, according to senior UN officials.

READ MORE: Russia and Rwanda send hundreds of troops to Central African Republic

Russian, Rwandan troops in CAR

Officials and a security source in the capital Bangui said earlier on Monday that Rwanda and Russia had dispatched troops and supplies.

They could bolster security forces and over 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers as armed rebel groups, some of whom fought one another in the country's prolonged conflict, have formed an alliance and are threatening to march on the capital.

Militia violence 

The mineral-rich but deeply impoverished country has struggled to regain stability since 2013 when then-president Francois Bozize was ousted by a rebellion of mainly Muslim Seleka rebels.

Alleged human rights abuses by the Seleka sparked reprisals from the mostly Christian anti-balaka militia, plunging the landlocked country into a spiral of tit-for-tat violence.

Clashes surged in the days after the country's highest court barred Bozize from running in Sunday's election.

President Faustin-Archange Touadera's government has accused Bozize of plotting a coup.

READ MORE: UN peacekeepers deployed to CAR to protect election from militia groups

Vote to go ahead 

Some political parties have called for the election to be postponed due to the spate of violence, while the International Crisis Group think tank urged neighbouring heads of state on Tuesday to help Bozize and Touadera strike a deal and calm the situation to ensure the election can proceed.

The United Nations mission in the CAR and the government insists that the vote will go ahead. 

READ MORE: The Central African Republic is a hub for French and Russian disinformation

Source: Reuters